What sort of humour is acceptable and what might be seen as bullying or discrimination? This assembly by John Coutts considers the question in the light of a recent sporting event


A leader and four readers. Discussion may also take place.


Leader: Most of us will have heard of Lewis Hamilton, the World Champion in Formula One motor racing. He is the first black person to compete for this prestigious title. When Hamilton raced in Spain, some spectators mocked Hamilton by wearing wigs, dark make-up and t-shirts with the slogan ‘Hamilton’s Family’. They thought they were being funny, and Bernie Ecclestone – the president of Formula One motor racing – didn’t seem to think that this behaviour was a problem. He said:

Bernie Ecclestone (Reader 1): “Those things are all a bit of a joke and people are entitled to support who they want to support. I don’t see why people should have been insulted by it.”

Leader: But ‘Kick it Out’ – an organisation that fights racism in sport – didn’t agree. They said:

Kick it Out (Reader 2): “Fans blacking up in the stands was overt, old-school racism. People are entitled to support who they want but that is no reason for racist abuse, which this clearly was. What Bernie Ecclestone said is shocking and disgraceful. You would expect him to be protective of someone like Hamilton.”

Leader: And what did Lewis Hamilton himself say about it?

Lewis Hamilton (Reader 3): “I didn’t see it as a joke. It’s something that’s happened but it is in the past.”

Leader: So…when is a joke not a joke? When does ‘just having a laugh’ turn into a nasty sneer, or even bullying or discrimination? That is the topic of today’s assembly.


Leader: Let’s start by discussing nicknames…

Reader 1: [Interrupting] What’s wrong with nicknames? Nicknames are just a way of having fun between friends. There’s an old saying ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones…’

Reader 2: ‘…but names can never hurt me.’

Leader: That sounds good, but is it true? Let’s hear from another famous sports star: his original name was ‘Edson Arantes do Nascimento’. Who is he? Does anybody know?

[The answer is Pelé – the famous Brazilian footballer]

How did ‘Edson’ come to be called ‘Pelé’? Let’s hear what he says on the subject…

Pelé (Reader 3): “My name is ‘Edson’. It sounds like ‘Thomas Edison’ the man who invented the light bulb. But a classmate wanted to annoy me with the name ‘Pelé’. Pelé sounds like baby talk in Portuguese. When he called me that, I flipped. I was usually a good student and wouldn’t hurt a fly, but I punched him and got suspended from school for two days.”

Leader: ‘You’re just a baby! Pelé-Pelé-Pelé.’ That’s what the other boy was saying. And Young Edson couldn’t stand it. Sticks and stones didn’t break his bones but the nickname certainly did hurt him.

Reader 1: It didn’t do him much harm in the long run, did it? In the end he even chose ‘Pelé’ as his real name. And it didn’t stop him helping Brazil to win the World Cup three times.

Leader: So it doesn’t matter if a nickname is meant to make you feel silly?

Reader 2: No. It was unkind but Pelé is a tough guy – not really a baby at all. I reckon he should have taken it on the chin. You should never give nicknames that poke fun at people’s weakness or disability. But if you give a nickname with good humour then it’s OK.

Reader 3: But Pelé was upset at the time. We don’t know how it affected him and how much he felt hurt by it – even though he went on to use the name and be successful. I reckon you have to be careful. Sometimes people gang up on somebody without really meaning it. All the wisecracks start to fly in one direction, and what starts as a laugh can turn into something ugly.

Leader: Suppose we say that it’s OK to laugh with people, but wrong to laugh at them: where does that leave the crowd who wore dark make-up when watching Lewis Hamilton?

Reader 3: They were definitely laughing at him. That was wrong.

Reader 1: Hold on. Lewis Hamilton is rich and famous. He’s a celebrity. I reckon if you’re a celebrity and keep appearing on TV then you have to expect that some people will try to make fun of you.

Leader: So it’s all right to laugh at a celebrity but wrong to poke fun at a poor person?

Reader 2: Celebrities are supposed to be role models. If they behave like idiots or set bad examples then they deserve to be laughed at.

Reader 3: But Lewis Hamilton didn’t behave like an idiot – in fact he was definitely doing his best. So he shouldn’t have been laughed at.

Leader: So making jokes can be a serious business. Life would be very dull without them, but we can’t see inside each other’s minds to see how other people feel about them, and sometimes so-called ‘harmless fun’ can hurt someone else very badly.

Please listen to this short meditation and prayer:

Reader 1: Do laugh with me.
Don’t laugh at me.

Reader 2: Don’t poke fun at my failures.
Don’t joke about my race or religion.

Reader 3: Don’t sneer because you don’t like my music or my hobbies.
Don’t gang up on me because I look different.

Reader 1: I don’t need ‘funny’ phone calls.

Reader 2: I don’t need unpleasant text messages.

Reader 3: I don’t need nasty comments posted on the internet.

Reader 1: Don’t laugh at me.

Reader 2: But please do laugh with me.

Reader 3: Let’s laugh together when something comical happens.
When things are really tough, let’s see the funny side.

Reader 1: Post me a funny greeting card.

Reader 2: Send me a cheerful text message.

Reader 3: And best of all: give me a friendly smile.

[Pause for ten seconds]

Readers 1, 2, 3: Amen.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.